NEW DELHI: A decision was taken somewhere in the corridors of government power, with the help of its affiliated verandahs, that the strategy should be to squeeze the democratic space on Kashmir on the one hand, and bring the Valley itself under the iron militaristic fist of the powerful Centre.

The backdrop was over the past two years when the Kashmiris were brought under pressure with a series of statements and proposals such as segregated colonies that was even opposed by Kashmiri pandits currently living in the Valley as a bad idea, abrogation of an already diluted Article 370, and various sweeping remarks branding Kashmiris as terrorists, or sympathisers.

Outside the Valley, Kashmiri students were attacked with increasing frequency in what was intended as a warning that they should all return to the Valley, and not seek education in other states. Many parents did insist on bringing their wards back, while others cautioned the Kashmiris not to participate in any discussions or meetings for fear of arrest and assault.

The democratic space that had allowed free discussions on Kashmir at different levels was placed under threat, first by smaller action against student organisations in Chennai and in Hyderabad and then a virtual police swoop in Jawaharlal Nehru University where students were picked up for sedition. JNU had been holding regular meetings on Kashmir, with different organisations within the campus holding different views. The action against the students campuses has effectively taken away the room to discuss and debate the issue, with the occasional meeting on Kashmir in JNU for instance being held under security supervision.

It was made clear from reported incidents across the country, that meetings on Kashmir were not to be encouraged with the ABVP---student wing of the BJP---being kept in motion to attack all such interventions by civil society. The Bangalore incident where a sedition complaint was filed by the ABVP against Amnesty, this writer and two others on the basis of which the Bangalore police registered a FIR against Amnesty is a case in point. That this happened in a Congress ruled state is significant. At the time of writing this now the Bangalore police has come out with a statement that no anti-national slogans were raised at the venue of this meeting. However, Amnesty caught in the tangle has had to call off the campaign on Kashmir scheduled for other cities.

These 50 days where the government moved in with an iron fist during the initial stages of the protests have, however, rattled the corridors and the verandahs and all those who were keeping silent on the issue. The efforts to dub the protests as just Pakistan inspired, or terrorist motivated has not worked as the thousands on the streets every day were categorical that they were protesting as Kashmiris and not as agents of any provocateurs.

Intelligence agencies, and the Army confirmed that the Pakistan hand, always visible in the Valley and recognised by successive governments of India itself as a stakeholder, while present was certainly not in the drivers seat. And nor were the Hurriyat leaders who were following the directives of the young people on the streets.The anger and alienation that has burst through is largely spontaneous, and so strong that it has withstood firing, deaths, injuries, pellet blindings for 50 days along with busted business and lack of food and medicines.

The Opposition finally lurched out of its stupor and during debates in Parliament insisted on the need for a political solution and not a militaristic approach. The Army intervened just recently to underline the need for a dialogue with all, making it clear in the process that it should not be placed at the front to directly confront young people, as the consequences would be disastrous for both sides. The youth in terms of casualties, the Army in terms of reputation and image that it values being a highly professional force.

The 50 days have made it clear to the government and the world that is clearly watching given the media coverage across the globe, that the Kashmiri youth are not going to back down. There is a sense that the elders want the government to open doors for a dialogue so that their children are saved; but at the same time there seems to be a resolve not to back off in what many insist has become a do or die battle.

Kashmiri seniors are themselves baffled about the youth, and more so about the fearlessness. As a senior academic said, “I see them myself go straight up to the security forces with heavy weapons and look them straight in the eye, just boys I know. It is as if they are all prepared to die, and do not care if they do.” The pellet guns used with no restraint in the initial stages of the protests did draw blood, as many of the young are maimed for life. But here the response in the rest of India lost the governments at both the centre and the state considerable goodwill , with the world media condemning what were categorised as human rights violations. Parliament took it up as well, with the government being forced to give an assurance that it would examine other non lethal forms of weapons for which an expert committee has been set up.

Everyone knows that this state of affairs cannot continue. Both sides are suffering with the Army controlling highways but refusing unofficially of course, to go into civilian areas on a large scale. Exhausted CRPF and BSF men standing on long hours of duty become trigger happy as the past has shown, suffering also from the stress that Kashmiri civilians are being treated for, in an increasing number of cases.

Kashmir is on the brink of explosion now, with even those advocating ‘occupation of the territory and to hell with the people’ approach realising that this rhetoric is hollow in real terms. So far the youth have not picked up arms, and are only using stones in their running battles with the security forces. Those in the PDP and NC who have seen the years of militancy, have cautioned the government to take remedial measures to prevent such a shift and as one of them told this writer, “we will be plunged into the dark days if these people do not act soon.”

There are signs of a bit of a climbdown now with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting the Valley twice in a month. CM Mehbooba Mufti followed him back to Delhi to meet with PM Narendra Modi where she has reportedly asked him to institutionalise a dialogue, to include the separatists and to start talks with Pakistan as well. The government has cleared a visit of an all party delegation to Kashmir, and now stated that the members are free to meet the Hurriyat leaders if they so want. In yet another source based leak, the government is reported to now have lifted its objections to involving the Hurriyat in a larger dialogue, and is presently working to set up a three member interlocutor team to set this into motion.

The situation, however, remains fluid. The youth are still staring down the abyss as is the country with them.

(Seema Mustafa is the Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen)

(Cover Photograph Basit Zargar)